Story: Waka – canoes

Page 2. Waka in New Zealand

All images & media in this story

As Māori tribes developed and grew there was also a change in waka culture. Descended from a people who lived on small Pacific islands, where land was at a premium and their lives often depended on what they could find in the ocean, they now had extensive space and resources. The importance of building vessels that could navigate vast oceans declined. The forests provided an abundance of building materials suitable for local needs. As a result, there were changes in the design, construction and use of craft.

Single-hulled vessels

In Aotearoa (New Zealand), waka became predominantly single-hulled vessels, classified by their size, shape, adornment and use. This in turn was determined by the type and quantity of native trees. The beam of a Pacific Island canoe was limited by the narrow girth of the local trees. A builder would have to construct a narrow hull and build up the sides to raise the freeboard, which created instability. To compensate, he would attach an outrigger float with crossbeams to the hull.

By contrast, New Zealand’s trees – tōtara, kauri, mangeao, rimu, kahikatea, and mataī – were so large that canoes of sufficient beam could be constructed with raised top strakes (planking from prow to stern) attached to the gunwales, yet still be so stable that an outrigger float was unnecessary. The widely available tōtara was the most common material, while kauri was used in the north. Canoes were built for inland and coastal waterways, and no longer needed the specifications of the ancestral voyaging waka. New types became common in Māori communities – waka taua, waka tētē, waka tīwai, mōkihi, and the modern-day waka tangata.

How to cite this page:

Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka – canoes - Waka in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/waka-canoes/page-2 (accessed 19 October 2017)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 12 Jun 2006